Three ways to strengthen employee accountability & engagement

Three ideals, three threats, three responses. Addressing employee engagement in the digital age.

No, this isn’t a tongue twister. But employee engagement in the digital age can feel like a mind-bending task for a leader. People management today will often mean balancing a workforce made up of contractors, millennials, employees absorbed in through company mergers and baby-boomers – some of whom might be working virtually and, not to mention, utilising or abusing (!) multiple ERP systems.

Effective leadership means handing over projects and empowering your team to successfully complete them. But what if your employees don’t feel a sense of personal responsibility? And worse, what if something goes wrong as a result? A digital workplace can complicate matters further.

Late last year, Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research published a lengthy report entitled: “Fewer sleepless nights. How leaders can build a culture of responsibility in a digital age.” We have summarised this report, which made 34 citations from previous studies, and we have added insight from our experiences of placing leaders in digitalising businesses.

Digital technologies can contribute to a lack of clarity around the roles, rules, and relationships—making responsibility, or the choice to take ownership all the way to the end outcome, more difficult. These three pillars should be in place for one to take responsibility. A lack of clarity in just one of these areas can weaken one’s sense of responsibility for a work-related outcome. Researchers have referred to these three factors as “the psychological glue that attaches an individual to the end outcome.” 

As a leader, it’s crucial to instil clarity around rules, relationships, and roles before handing off a high-stakes project to your team. Because, of course, you would ultimately be held responsible for your team’s mistakes.

What do we mean by the three Rs?

Roles: Is my role clear?

Role clarity is the extent to which individuals understand their responsibilities and the organisational impact they can make. The Deloitte researchers found that people whose roles are clear (not easy in the digital age) are, "more likely to feel a stronger sense of identification with the organisation and may willingly invest more energy toward positive outcomes".

Rules: Are others around me observing the rules and engaged in the project’s success?

Rules encompass the explicitly and implicitly communicated processes and social norms that govern the right thing to do in a particular context. An apathy towards policies can create confusion on how work actually gets done within an organisation.

Relationships: Do I feel connected to others involved?

Relationships describe the strength of interpersonal trust, or connectedness, among the individuals involved, and the feeling that team members are invested in each other’s development. Stated simply, it’s the belief that others have your back. The Deloitte researchers found that individuals are more willing to take responsibility when they believe others are invested in their overall success at work.

How digitalisation threatens the three Rs

There are three main ways digital technologies may change the workplace environment and potentially affect roles, rules, and relationships and thus, by extension, on personal responsibility. These are:

  1. The rise of virtual bonds and remote work
  2. Increased automation
  3. The shifting pace of work

Little explanation is required to understand how disruptive distance, dehumanisation and breakneck speed can be to roles, rules of engagement and time-invested bonds. So, what can be done to harness digital disruption for positive purposes and mitigate the sharp edges that harm good basic business practices? Deloitte identifies three courses of action, which we have commented on.

  1. Promoting intentional collaboration
  2. Driving reciprocity amongst co-workers
  3. Practice digital leadership

1. Promoting intentional collaboration

Deloitte’s advice

Reward and recognise collaborative efforts. Organisations today are relying more heavily on participative and collaborative unit efforts so consider measuring group metrics rather than simply relying on individual performance metrics.

Secondly, whenever possible, try to leverage the wisdom of crowds in problem-solving. Bring people together to solve a problem bigger than their own work or function. In our view, not only is there no excuse for not tapping into networks internally and externally. Your organisation’s thinking could be sharpened with input from your employees tapping into their rich, and now fast reacting, external networks such as MBA groups or blue chip alumni networks. Who wouldn’t want 25 MBAs' opinions on the very best CRM networks?

Thirdly, create peer accountability during goal setting. By allowing employees to identify others who are necessary partners in achieving their own individual goals. We have found that large companies see this as an opportunity to partner tech-novice baby-boomers with tech-native millennials and have them learn from each other. As the environment grows increasingly dynamic, crafting goals that allow people to become accountable to each other could be a more effective way of clarifying roles and deepening relationships that can evolve in rhythm with project sheets.

Collingwood’s view

I’ve personally become aware of a country team in a large industrial corporation that has a global reputation for best practice in service delivery. As a result, being part of the team is an aspirational goal. Those within this team enjoy being global influencers, whether it be as a single contributor or as a team leader. The collaborative approach of the team has led to and, for individuals, a sense of being ‘part of something bigger’ and a stronger sense of self-identity as a by-product of being in such a globally recognised team.

2. Driving reciprocity amongst co-workers

If you can influence the big picture, have the courage to make decisions that can benefit the whole organisation—not just a few stakeholders within your own domain. This involves taking a longer-term view but could dovetail with the organisation’s key strategic priorities in a commonsense way. 

If you are at team leadership level, check in often on your employees and their sense of commitment toward the organisation. An easy and often missed opportunity is to check in during reoccurring one-on-ones. Putting 10 minutes aside to actively listen can make all the difference to a pressured but conscientious staff-member and mitigate a multitude employee experience issues.

Collingwood’s view

Every piece of sales and marketing training will tell you that people are more willing to go the extra mile and act honestly with people they like and trust. In addition, the more we identify ourselves with others and a cause, the more motivated we usually are to actively ‘buy-into’ an idea and assume responsibility for an outcome.

3. Practice digital leadership

It’s essential to hire digital leaders who can harness technology and can engage a diverse workforce toward a common goal. And that includes at junior management level. There is nothing more confusing for younger employees than going through digital organisational change is seeing seniors who are not habitually using technology well or, are vocal in discrediting it.

People are social creatures and often model the behaviour of others, especially those in authority. Deloitte keenly points out that, above all, numerous studies have shown how quickly people adopt the behaviour of a leader. It’s your example that matters.